Are the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) administrative checkpoint searches limited to those “no more extensive nor intensive than necessary, in the light of current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives” as required by the Ninth Circuit, or may the TSA conduct more extensive searches as allowed in this case by the Eleventh Circuit?
This is the first and perhaps most significant of the questions presented to the US Supreme Court by a petition for certiorari in the case of Jonathan Corbett v. TSA, et al. The petition as filed last month was rejected on trivial procedural grounds, but is being resubmitted and should appear shortly on the Supreme Court’s voluminous docket of pending petitions.
This is an important case because almost the only limit on TSA searches which the courts have recognized has been the requirement that they be limited to searches for weapons and explosives, and that TSA checkpoints not be used as pretexts for general law enforcement dragnets.
In press releases and blog posts, the TSA has claimed that it has broader authority to detain, search, and interrogate travelers about matters unrelated to weapons, explosives, or transportation security. In practice, TSA checkpoint staff and contractors routinely rifle through wallets, read and copy books and papers, and search for any evidence that might create a suspicion of any criminality. But even while upholding the legality of these searches in specific cases, courts have continued to uphold, at least in theory and rhetoric, the principle that searches at TSA checkpoints are “limited”.
So far as we can tell, the decision by the 11th Circuit in Corbett v. TSA is the first appellate opinion explicitly to approve the use of TSA checkpoints for a broader general (warrentless and suspicionless) search of all travelers for evidence of any sort of potential crime.